Austin Bay
A Russian folk proverb, translated as "trust, but verify," became one of President Ronald Reagan's signature dictums. Reagan loved quips, but he knew this remarkable phrase was an explanatory twofer. It communicated both the predicament his administration confronted when negotiating Cold War treaties with the USSR and firm policy guidance for resolving the predicament, particularly when the negotiations involved security agreements.

When negotiating with a tyranny, a free and open society is immediately in a bind: dictatorships are inherently untrustworthy because they are regimes maintained by brutal distrust. Tyrants don't trust their own people. Instead, they trust instruments of fear -- bayonets, secret police -- using them to intimidate, imprison, or, when necessary, murder political opponents. Laws in these closed societies are convenient fictions, which means they really don't exist. Ultimately, tyrants rule by whim, which means rule by circumstantial convenience. When -- not if -- it benefits the tyranny to cheat on a negotiated agreement, it will do it.

Extracting trust from the untrustworthy -- how to do it is a quandary. Reagan knew reducing the USSR's Cold War nuclear arsenal would benefit America and its allies. However, Soviet reductions had to be genuine. Hence the quip's policy guidance: verification. But verification entailed opening the USSR'S closed society. In order to have a substantive, real world agreement between the superpowers that would reduce the threat of nuclear devastation and promote peace, the USSR had to change.

Let's call that regime alteration, since it isn't quite regime change.

What brought about regime alteration in the USSR? There were several predicates, but two in particular. Soviet economic decline was one. The USSR's economic failure was fostered by Communism's economic stupidity and the American strategy of containment. Containment was economic, political and military sanctions writ large. The other predicate: Reagan's willingness to use American military power when challenged by a calculated Kremlin political and propaganda gambit, the so-called 1983 Euro-missile crisis.

In a recent column, I suggested that manufactured crisis was the Cold War's last great political battle. Ultimately, Reagan deployed American nuclear-armed missiles to Western Europe to counter Soviet nuclear missiles, despite a bitter, fanatical Soviet political and propaganda effort to thwart the U.S. response. Reagan, in the pursuit of genuine arms reductions, had to unsheathe the saber and show it. His administration's counter-deployment enforced the security red line the Soviets had crossed.


Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
 
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